It’s easy to sometimes wonder whether New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is even capable of loving.
That probably is a little harsh, but a quick Google Images search for “Bill Belichick” produces countless instances of a stone-faced Belichick either pacing the Patriots’ sideline or deflecting questions at the press conference podium. Instances of emotion of any kind are rare, let alone a smile.
But if you want to turn that scowl into a smile a la The Grinch, just ask him about punters. Sure, you can get Belichick to open up (relatively speaking, of course) by asking him about things like lacrosse, the Naval Academy, Halloween or the good old days, but nothing seems to fire up the head coach more than a chat about the kicking game, specifically the art of punting.
Belichick raved Wednesday about Los Angeles Rams punter Johhny Hekker, for whom Belichick had ultimate praise. He even went as far to call Hekker a “weapon” for the Rams. A weapon! The punter!
But if you’ve followed Belichick’s career, it’s no secret how much he values the kicking game, especially as it pertains to punters.
Like many aspects of Belichick’s coaching background, much of his influence can be traced back to his father. Maybe that’s where Bill’s love of punting started, as Steve’s area of expertise while working with the Navy football team was, well, you probably could guess.
From David Halberstrom’s Belichick biography “The Education of a Coach”:
“Even after (Steve Belichick) retired, he went back and coached. No one coached punters better than he did, and long after he retired, other coaches would call him for tips on how to handle their punters, who were somehow believed to be different from all other football players.”
It probably should come as no surprise that Belichick spent the early stages of his own coaching career overseeing special teams units across the NFL. The Detroit Lions hired him as assistant special teams coach in 1976, and he served similar roles with the Denver Broncos and New York Giants before the Giants promoted him to linebackers coach and special teams coach in 1980. Four years later, the Giants named him defensive coordinator, and he helped New York win two Super Bowl titles.
The infatuation with punters, however, was far from over as he ascended to head coach in Cleveland before landing with the Patriots.
It’s maybe a bit ironic, all things considered, a punt almost dearly cost the Patriots during their 2003 Super Bowl season. A bad punt almost facilitated a miracle comeback for the Indianapolis Colts in Week 11, a loss that could have cost the Patriots home-field advantage. Even after the Patriots won the Super Bowl — beating Indy at home to get there — Belichick lamented the punting issues.
From “The Education of a Coach”:
“Can you believe we’re here,” Belichick told Ernie Adams just before the second Super Bowl started. “We can’t run the ball, we can’t punt the ball, and we can’t snap for field goals.”
The Patriots finished 28th in net punt yardage that season.
Over the years, mostly in New England, Belichick has progressively opened up in media sessions or in interviews, especially if the topic of punting came up.
“You hardly see anybody go for the sidelines any more,” bemoaned Belichick in a 2009 story on punting in The New York Times. “Show me a punter who coffin corners. You don’t see it. They don’t do it.”
In an ESPN.com story about emergency punters in 2011, Belichick gave a great answer about punting technique, comparing it to golf, an analogy he’s used on more than occasion.
From the ESPN.com story:
“There are plenty of things that go into the punting position,” said Belichick. “It’s not like standing out on the driving range, teeing it up, and hitting it as far as you can. Situation punting is probably over half the game in punting, whether it’s directional punting, rushes, plus-50, end-of-the-game or end-of-half-type situations. One deep, two deep, overload rushes, I mean you can just keep going.
“There are a million things that the punter has to deal with — the punter, the whole punt team, personal protector, snapper, [things] that everyone has to deal with. There’s certainly a lot more to it than just catching the ball and kicking it as far as you can, so that’s something we work on every week and it changes every week. Every team we play is different and then you always have to deal with the conditions and the situation within the game so there’s plenty of stuff going on there.”
Any discussion about Belichick’s punt preferences must include his love for left-footed punters. As NFL.com pointed out in 2013, Belichick started each of his first 14 seasons with a left-footed punter, a streak that ultimately continued with Ryan Allen, who’s been the Patriots’ punter since 2013. Belichick chalked it up as a “coincidence,” but we’re not buying it.
There also was the time last season he gave a 628-word answer to a question about the emergence of rugby-style punting in the NFL.
And it’s utterly unsurprising that Belichick believes punters (and kickers) deserve a place in Canton.
“I don’t know if it’s a popularity contest or if it’s a political thing,” Belichick said in 2009, per ProFootballTalk.com. “I don’t know what it is. It’s hard for me to believe that, as great as this game is, that there are no punters and one kicker in the Hall of Fame. We can argue that they only play ‘X’ number of plays and everybody else plays a different number of plays but they’re still significant players at their position. Again, what the criteria is for them, I don’t know.”
If and when we see a Hall of Fame punter — Hekker, perhaps? — it won’t be overstating the matter to say that someone with the pedigree of Belichick and his infatuation, admiration and respect for the position and those play it played a big role in the change.
Thumbnail photo via Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports Images